We talked to Ben Stokes of SocialTable about social networking and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ben Stokes: COVID-19 was tough on many fronts. Thankfully, both my and my co-founder Wolfgang’s family are safe. Thank you for asking. COVID-19 has seen a lot of changes in my life. Before the pandemic, I was living in San Francisco. The city’s ‘shelter in place’ order guided my decision to return to Australia. I was fortunate enough to grab one of the last Qantas flights from SF to Sydney, which is where I have been since March.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SocialTable.
Ben Stokes: My career can be summed up best with me saying I’ve been in a pursuit to find my purpose in life. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. You can read a recent address I gave at the Leaders on Purpose Summit at the UN General Assembly here.
I created SocialTable because I needed it. After returning home after living overseas for an extended period, I found myself in search of finding like-minded people with similar experiences and priorities as mine. What didn’t help at the time was that the majority of my friends had just started having kids. Now don’t get me wrong, I love kids – but at the time, they meant an end to weekly catch-ups, dinners, drinks, and social engagements with my group of friends.
To put it bluntly, SocialTable was created so I wouldn’t have to eat dinner alone. However, I didn’t realize that I was creating something that a lot of other people needed. Our vision is for a better-connected world with less social isolation and loneliness. Even before the pandemic, social isolation and loneliness were a global problem. Studies showed that ¾ Americans, ⅔ Brits, and ½ Aussies had all felt socially isolated and lonely within the last 3 months. Add to that a pandemic with lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, and you’ll see a significant increase in those numbers.
How does SocialTable innovate?
Ben Stokes: Our focus has been to innovate in the area of accuracy in the connections we make for the attendees of the events we host. This is done two-fold; by creating a product that is free of unconscious bias; with an algorithm that gives a higher percent chance of meaningful connections being made.
SocialTable has been built on the premise of radical inclusivity, which enables us to reduce unconscious bias. We do not show any photographs of our attendees prior to an event and instead have gamified the introductory process through storytelling. Prior to an event, attendees receive an email with a list of names and random facts that pertain to the group. Guests arrive with a genuine interest to get to know the other people who are attending the event, as well as the opportunity to tell their own unique story. We help attendees highlight their stories, and through our corporate offering, we give the opportunity through experience-led workshops on how to use storytelling to create deeper, more meaningful connections.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ben Stokes: The pandemic saw the social dining model of SocialTable be put on hold; indefinitely. The original model saw strangers book and pay for a single seat at a group table at a restaurant as a way of meeting people. Think of it like dining with strangers and leaving with new friends at the end. With our business model originally being built around the restaurant industry, we were beholden to the lockdown restrictions that affected restaurant dining. We had to go back to the drawing board and recreate our product offering to incorporate an alternative if we were going to survive. It was tough – to say the least. But we managed to get through it.
For 3 months, we didn’t know what to do. Every indicator said we should have failed. But instead, we survived. We extended our offering to include a virtual networking option, which allowed us to pivot and, more importantly, stay true to our vision of helping people connect. However, instead of group dining, we now partner with wineries (and tea houses for those who do not drink alcohol) that give attendees a VIP-like wine tasting experience and deliver their products directly to attendees’ doors. Guests still share an experience together, which also helps them relax and gives them an added educational component as well. Not only did the pandemic enable us to expand our product offering, but it also allowed us to expand globally. We have had guests on every inhabitable continent (we’re still waiting for someone to call in from Antarctica…), with events in every time zone.
We have both personal and professional networking events and hold networking events for conferences, associations, and companies, helping attendees, members, and employees connect and stay connected during the pandemic. We consider ourselves an upgrade on after-work drinks. The pandemic has further highlighted how integral connections are to our mental health and overall wellbeing. We’ve been able to shift our work lives and meetings to being virtual successfully; however, we have been unable to shift Friday afternoon drinks or the conversations we share when we’ve had a loss on a deal or, most importantly, a win at the office which usually happens through a bottle of champagne and a few drinks with your workmates. That is, until now. Through SocialTable’s global partnership network, we can deliver drinks directly to guests’ doors, which helps them have that shared experience where they can laugh and joke around, talk about tough days, and share wins, all whilst remaining safe. It’s been a win-win for everyone involved, and we look forward to helping more people stay connected.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ben Stokes: We’ve had to make a number of tough decisions. One of the hardest for me as the founder and CEO of the company was to let staff go. I hated having to make those decisions. But it was necessary. Financially the pandemic hit us as we had just started to hit our stride. Thankfully, everybody was able to find other positions. But we lost good people. I’m sure that every business leader who saw a reduction in their revenue would say the same thing, that those first few months were tough on their own mental health. However, it was about being honest with employees. We couldn’t keep paying them when we had no revenue. Thankfully everyone was understanding and received a letter of recommendation to assist in their job search.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from all of this is to be kind to both others and, more importantly, to yourself. I had to make tough decisions that affected people’s lives. They really paid a toll on me. At the beginning of the pandemic, I went through a lot of changes. It took a toll on me. Thankfully I had a lot of support throughout that time, but the biggest lesson was being able to be ok with everything not being ‘perfect’ or going to plan. It was because I was able to accept there was nothing I could do to prevent what was happening around me that I was able to adapt to the circumstances and come out stronger on the other side. It’s a journey, and life can definitely throw you some interesting curve balls; however, no problem is insurmountable. I implore you to reach out to someone if you’re having a tough time. If you feel like you don’t have anyone to call – please reach out to your local mental support line.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Ben Stokes: Taking time out for yourself is really important. If I’m having a tough day, I go for a walk outside. One thing I’ve noticed since the pandemic, I can go long periods without leaving the house. I’ve made sure that I factor that into my routine. I also throw on some music and dance like nobody’s watching! I know that probably sounds stupid – but hey…it always lifts my mood.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ben Stokes: We have a number of competitors, such as Meetup and Facebook. However, we believe our process and algorithm are what sets us apart, as we connect you with people you ‘should’ know and don’t rely solely on the circumstance. We’re fortunate to have Simon Glinsky, Co-Founder of Match.com, on our board of directors. He wrote their matching algorithm and has guided us through our process of building our networking clusters.
Your final thoughts?
Ben Stokes: I want to reiterate how important it is to be kind to yourself; and how important it is to reach out to people during tough times. Also – come join a SocialTable wine or tea tasting. It’ll be the best zoom call you’ll have that day!
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